June 14, 2024

FIELD GOALS | Looking for the next Philippine striker

FIELD GOALS | Looking for the next Philippine striker
Strikers, or number nines as they are also called, have been a select group for Philippine football, and the men's national team is looking for the next great one.

The Philippines men’s national football team has a striker problem.


Simply put, there is a lack of actual strikers available for the national squad and it was evident in the last few international windows.


But this is an old problem.


Strikers, or number nines as they are also called, have been a select group for the Philippines. It could be argued that since the 2010s, you can list down the strikers the Philippines has had to lead the line on a consistent basis with one hand:


Javi Patino, Ian Araneta, Angel Guirado, and Phil Younghusband.



And since Younghusband retired after the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, there hasn’t been an actual target man or striker whose job is to basically create goals for the national team.


[Related: FIELD GOALS | The Philippine men’s national football team members are slowly re-introducing themselves]


The Philippines has typically relied on converted strikers, such as wing back Santi Rublico playing up front in the last match against Iraq or with number 10s and wide players asked to play a more forward role like Patrick Reichelt.


In the 14 years since the breakout game of the Philippines against Vietnam in the then-AFF Suzuki Cup, homegrown talent that have developed into the elite level haven’t been strikers, leaving an obvious gap.



Defenders Amani Aguinaldo and Marco Casambre, goalkeeper Patrick Deyto, midfielder Sandro Reyes, and winger Pocholo Bugas are some of the more recent homegrown players called up that have actually played.


Some would argue that former Ateneo striker Jarvey Gayoso is a forward, but has typically been used as a wide attacking player rather than a number nine so far.


Current Philippine men’s national team manager Freddy Gonzalez recognized the national team’s lack of strikers.


But Gonzalez said this is actually a global issue, especially with the appeal of playing a certain style of football starting in the 2010s.


“I think that is a worldwide problem,” Gonzalez said. “That goes back to when Barcelona started playing the whole tiki-taka football and the false nine and not relying on a striker.”


For those unfamiliar, simply put "tiki-taka" is the style of play used by Barcelona in their pomp with Lionel Messi and the Spanish national team during their triumphs in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, as well as the 2008 and 2012 Euro titles.


It emphasized possession, short passing, and featured a “false nine” which was a player that would drop into midfield instead of leading the line like a typical nine would.


“A lot of times with this tiki-taka over possession style of football, all teams have to do is just be compact defensively and make sure they can't score,” Gonzalez said.


Gonzalez felt this issue has affected how football is taught and played in the Philippines.


“That's a problem here in the Philippines as well, every club wants to be (Barcelona and Manchester City),” the Philippine team manager said. “Every kid wants to be Messi, every kid wants to be that kind of player where you are pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass all the way into the goal.”


According to Gonzalez, he doesn’t mind if his team struggled with possession as long as they stay compact at the back and get the shots needed to actually win games.


And having a number nine, whose job would be is to pepper the goal with shots and hold up play to allow the rest of the team to join the attack, certainly helps in achieving that.


“To win football games you have to score and you can't score if you don't shoot,” Gonzalez said. “So you still need that number nine.”


Gonzalez has had conversations with the Philippine Football Federation to start "breeding strikers" in order to address the lack of players in the position in the future.


This involves coaching education and emphasizing the use of number nines at the youth national level.


[Related: FIELD GOALS | Ambition fuels a new chapter of Philippine football]


Gonzalez identified only one Philippine-based player who he considers as a natural number nine, naturally calling him up to the national squad last March.


“Locally, the only one who I've seen who acts like a number nine lately is somebody like Theo Libarnes, who has the instincts of a number nine,” Gonzalez said.


In the meantime, the national team has turned to foreign-based players to lead the attack.


Sebastian Rasmussen is a converted wing back that has shone playing as a number nine at the national team level.



But according to Gonzalez, Rasmussen was not match fit against Iraq and is currently in-between domestic clubs. It has become a priority for the national team management to get Rasmussen playing regularly in a club to get him to the appropriate level of fitness.


“If you get him fit, match fit in particular, regardless of whether he is playing in Europe, Thailand, Malaysia, or anywhere... Vietnam,” Gonzalez said. “Wherever he is playing, he is going to be a problem.”


“He is a huge guy, he can play with both feet, he has the instincts of a proper number nine, he is really strong. So we have to do everything we can to get him fit as possible,” Gonzalez added.


Gonzalez and head coach Tom Saintfiet have gone recruiting new talent as well, with US-based striker Nick Markanich and Norway-based Bjørn Martin Kristensen all in the process of completing their paperwork.


The prospect of a match-fit Rasmussen, Makanich, and Kristensen all playing together excites Gonzalez.


It would mean that the Philippines will go from a dearth of talent up front, to being spoilt for choice.


“From having no number nines initially, to now we have three options,” Gonzalez beamed.


“With those three involved you can really play different ways and those three are high quality, very good strikers and they'll cause problems for any team.”


Should all the pieces come into place, the national team will have more forward pieces to work with in an upcoming two-week training camp in Dubai.


This will be an opportunity for Saintfiet to actually have a full squad to imprint his style of play for the upcoming FIFA World Cup qualifying windows in June.


The Philippines are set to have tough away games against ASEAN neighbors Vietnam on June 6 and Indonesia on June 11.


But those games may be more winnable should the dream forward line come together for the Philippines in the upcoming weeks.